Days after Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney made his decision final regarding his starting quarterback, Kelly Bryant has announced his intent to move on from the program. Thanks to the NCAA’s new redshirt rule, Bryant will be able to retain his final year of eligibility despite having played in four games this season, and you should expect this to start becoming the new norm around college football.
If you thought the transfer game had been more active than ever before in recent years, you haven’t seen anything yet. Starting this year, the NCAA adjusted the rules regarding redshirt eligibility in an effort to provide more flexibility and roster depth for teams. Before this year, the very moment a player stepped on a playing field for a single snap, that year’s eligibility was officially used. But this year, the redshirt rule allows a player to appear in up to four games before having to officially use a redshirt year to preserve four years of eligibility.
It was thought this rule would allow freshmen and other young players to benefit by getting some actual game experience either early or later in the season without having to worry about losing a year of eligibility. Coaches could also find good spots to use potential playmakers in key situations without burning a year of that player’s eligibility. But as teams hit the four-game mark on their schedules this fall, we are already seeing another twist to the redshirt rule with what seems to be an increasing number of in-season transfer announcements.
Players choosing to leave their current programs in the middle of a season are not new, but the new redshirt rule appears to be opening the door for more players contemplating their future after a few games have been played, giving them a sense for how the rest of the season may shake out for them, personally. In the case of Kelly Bryant at Clemson, the new redshirt rule gave him the flexibility and time to figure out just where he stands in the Clemson program and now he can make the decision that he feels is in his best interest.
On Monday, Clemson officially announced that freshman Trevor Lawrence will be the starting quarterback for the Tigers, knocking Bryant, last year’s starter for the ACC champions that reached the College Football Playoff, to the role of backup. The decision was made after Clemson’s fourth game, with Swinney giving playing time to both Bryant and Lawrence before ultimately making the decision he feels gives Clemson the best chance to win this season. And, given the four-game sample size, the Clemson offense did appear to have more of a jolt with the talented freshman leading the offense while Bryant was fine but not spectacular.
In an interview with The Greenville News, Bryant discussed his decision to transfer and suggested he may not have gotten a fair shot at the starting job.
“I feel like it’s what’s best for me and my future,” Bryant said in the interview. “I was just going to control what I could control and try to make the most of my opportunity, but at the end of the day, I just don’t feel like I’ve gotten a fair shot.”
Additional quotes in the interview show how personally Bryant took the decision to name Lawrence the starter.
“They asked me how I felt about it,” Bryant said, recalling his meeting with Swinney. “I was like, ‘I’m not discrediting Trevor. He’s doing everything asked of him, but on my side of it, I feel like I haven’t done anything to not be the starter. I’ve been here. I’ve waited my turn. I’ve done everything y’all have asked me to do, plus more.’
“I’ve never been a distraction. I’ve never been in trouble with anything. To me, it was kind of a slap in the face.”
Consider this from the perspective of Bryant for a moment. Bryant was placed in the position of being the successor to Deshaun Watson, who led Clemson to back-to-back national championship game appearances and winning one before heading out to the NFL and the Houston Texans. Immediately after taking on the role of Watson’s successor, Swinney was already bringing in one of the top quarterback recruits in the nation in Lawrence. Watson was an all-time Clemson great, and Bryant was the filler between Watson and the hotshot freshman coming in shortly after. It is a difficult spot to be in, but Bryant handled it well and led Clemson to a 12-1 record (the lone loss came against Syracuse, when Bryant was knocked out of the game due to injury) with an ACC title and a third trip to the College Football Playoff, where he and Clemson were run over by eventual national champion Alabama. And with Lawrence on the way, Clemson fans and media were already speculating that Bryant would have to fight to keep his job.
Bryant had all spring and summer to win the starting job, yet Swinney kept the competition open and allowed it to continue for the first four games of the regular season. Perhaps this was a strategy for Swinney to give Lawrence four games to get some experience before being redshirted if necessary, but it was more than enough of an opportunity for Bryant to force Swinney to think otherwise. Clearly, that was not the case. And if Bryant chose to stay at Clemson, the next snap he took for the Tigers would have exhausted his final year of eligibility. Now, he will have a chance to play out one final season at another program (as a graduate transfer, he will be eligible to play in 2019.
Regardless of the outcome for Bryant at Clemson, his example will be emulated elsewhere around the nation and in the coming years as players use the first four games to evaluate whether or not they are in the best position to thrive individually. Already, Bryant is not alone either.
On the same day Clemson named Lawrence the starter, Arkansas wide receiver Jonathan Nance announced he was transferring from the Razorbacks after they had played four games. Nance was the team’s leading receiver in 2017 but has caught just one pass for a loss of two yards in the first four games under new head coach Chad Morris. Like Bryant, Nance is able to use his redshirt year for this season despite having appeared in each of the first four games Arkansas has played.
In-season transfer announcements may not have been the focus of the NCAA rules committee when it reviewed the redshirt rule change, but this is going to become much more normal in the sport moving forward.